“If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone.”
When I was in the Navy there was one seat in which you never sat, unless you were the captain of the ship. The captain’s chair on the bridge was more than symbolic — it was the place from which the captain would issue orders while at sea. To sit in it would mean more than a breach of protocol — it would mean you were trying to assume the captain’s authority.
Likewise, there is an oft-repeated saying, that if you want to stay on the right side of God, stay out of His seat. Stay out of the judgment seat of Christ, lest you be judged.
This is what makes this particular Gospel passage so dangerous — we often want to sit in the judgment seat of Christ, and use this passage as an excuse to wield the Church and the Bible as a weapon against any we feel have wronged us.
On the surface, the reasoning seems to be there, right in the text: “If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone.” If that doesn’t work, come back with two or three witnesses, and then tell the church, and if that still doesn’t work, then treat them as Gentiles and tax collectors — away with them, into the lake of fire, with much gnashing of teeth.
And that is how many Christians apply this passage. Let me give you an example. When I was a young boy, my family attended a non-denominational Christian church in the small town of Templeville, Md. It was a small, wood-frame country church, and my earliest memories of Sunday school and the Bible are from that church.
But, one fall, the church elders decided everyone who attended that church would send their children to the same private school — a small Mennonite school nearby.
We visited the school, I attended several days of classes there, and after it was all over, my parents decided it wasn’t a good fit for us.
So, one of the church elders visited my parents. Then two more visited my parents. Then they told the church — my parents simply refused to do what they were told. The next Sunday, I put on my little pearl snap Sunday shirt, my favorite cowboy boots — they had pointy toes — and we headed to church. We were met at the door by the church elders, who informed us we were not welcome. We had become as Gentiles and tax collectors, and it was off to the lake of fire for us.
To this day, my father only very grudgingly crosses the threshold of a church, and my older brother and sister are, at most, lukewarm about organized religion. And this is what Christians do with this small bit of Gospel, taken out of context and used as a weapon to effect their own will, and grind their own axes. Oh, the great damage we do to the Body of Christ when we think ourselves worthy to sit in His judgment seat.
The great problem is, we try to apply this passage in terms of sins committed against us — you’ve offended me, and now I will use the Church as my personal weapon for retribution. As Bishop James Long pointed out in his recent homily, only later revisions of the text include the term “against you” — before then it was only a matter or sin, and not sin taken personally.
If we still are confused about whether or not we’re to use this passage to confront those who’ve sinned against us personally, we’re not alone. In the very next passage, Peter is scratching his head. So, he asks Jesus: “Lord, how often will my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? As many as seven times?”
Peter, like us, wants to know how long he has to put up with people, before he can gather his holy posse, and either get even, or cast the unworthy out of the Church. But, Jesus said to him, “I do not say to you seven times, but seventy-seven times.”
Some translations say “seventy times seven times,” or 490 times. Either way, the point is clear — we are to keep forgiving. So, what does this passage concern? If it is not about us — and it is not — then what is it for?
Ezekiel makes it clear we have a responsibility to redirect our brothers when they go astray: “If I say to the wicked, ‘O wicked ones, you shall surely die,’ and you do not speak to warn the wicked to turn from their ways, the wicked shall die in their iniquity, but their blood I will require at your hand.”
That’s not about us being offended. That is about us pointing out when our brothers and sisters are closing their eyes and their hearts to the love and grace of Christ. It’s not about getting even. It’s about helping our brothers and sisters break down any barriers they’ve erected between themselves and Christ.
BUT we are not responsible to, authorized to or called to beat them about the head and shoulders with the Bible.
How we are to call people to God shifted fundamentally from the Old Testament to the New with the coming of Christ, and at the cross. In the Old Testament, the people of God were ruled by legalism.
At the cross, Christ shatters legalism and calls us instead to take up the cross of extending to others the grace and love He has shown us. Jesus spells this out in Matthew 22:36-40:
“Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?” Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. 39 And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”
Paul reiterates this in Romans: “for whoever loves others has fulfilled the law. The commandments, “You shall not commit adultery,” “You shall not murder,” “You shall not steal,” “You shall not covet,” and whatever other command there may be, are summed up in this one command: “Love your neighbor as yourself.’”
And what if they are not ready to accept that love? Neither Paul nor Christ tell us we shall cast them out into the darkness, throw them into the lake of fire, or any of that … when we think that, we are again trying to climb into the Judgment Seat of Christ.
When people begin to separate themselves from Christ, we must go to them, as Christ comes to us — without asking first if we are worthy. We must live the Way Christ gave us in the Parable of the Lost Sheep:
“Suppose one of you has a hundred sheep and loses one of them. Doesn’t he leave the ninety-nine in the open country and go after the lost sheep until he finds it? And when he finds it, he joyfully puts it on his shoulders and goes home. Then he calls his friends and neighbors together and says, ‘Rejoice with me; I have found my lost sheep.’ I tell you that in the same way there will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who do not need to repent.”
This is the spirit in which we are to go to those who are lost, those who are separating themselves from Christ. And, again, what if they are not ready to be found? Then they are as Gentiles and tax collectors.
And what do we do with Gentiles and tax collectors? Lake of fire? No, that is not up to us. Our only task is to love them. Love them. Pray for them. Keep the door open for them to become that found sheep. And in that way, we will fulfill the Law.